Tech’s the ticket

  • Technology
  • Tuesday, 30 Apr 2013

Plan your next holiday every kilometre of the way with the right tools.

THE culture of travel has changed tremendously. Technology has become an increasingly important part of the travel experience, with the advent of smart devices such as phones and tablets, as well as the ubiquity of the Internet.

Travellers are also finding that technology has a role to play not just during their trips, but even in the planning of their itinerary and post-travel review.

According to statistics from TripBarometer, an accommodation and traveller survey conducted by online travel content provider, TripAdvisor Inc, 93% of Malaysian travellers had used online resources to plan their last trip. Travel operator websites and web-based travel agencies ranked among the top three sources of information when they did such planning.

The survey also reported that many travellers continued to stay connected online even during their travels.

“In some emerging markets, users are bypassing desktops and getting online through mobile devices,” says Stephen Kaufer, president and chief executive officer at TripAdvisor.

“The top three uses of technology for Malaysians (while travelling) are to use apps to find attractions, to access the Internet and to upload photos to social networks.”

Rohizam Md Yusoff, chief executive officer of travel and tourism e-trading platform, SOTA (Smart Online Travel Assistant), uses the term SoLoMo (social, local, mobile) to describe the phenomenon of travellers’ ­growing dependence on technology.

The term implies that most travel ­experiences nowadays involve the use of social networks, location based technologies and mobile devices.

“SoLoMo is a major influence for travellers today,” he says. “Mobile apps and social media are assisting a whole community of travellers, enabling them to be well connected.”

As a result, Rohizam says travellers have become more knowledgeable and hence, make better decisions for their travels. With SoLoMo, travellers can easily seek out the best deals and receive timely guidance throughout their entire travel experience.

“The tech savvy travellers tend to do a lot of research on what’s available to them before they travel,” he says. “Travellers have become much smarter nowadays.”

With regards to online travel bookings, Rohizam advises travellers to exercise a certain degree of caution.

“The consumer should know who they’re buying from. They should only buy from agents that are licensed,” he says.

When comparing various travel packages, Rohizam emphasises that consumers have to ask enough questions so that it is crystal clear to them what products or services are actually being provided.

“Make a proper comparison so you are clear what you are paying for,” he adds.

Relationships and reviews

The TripBarometer survey also noted that online reviews were highly valued by 92% of Malaysian travellers, with around 35% having booked accommodation for their last trip via online sources.

“User generated content in travel review websites such as TripAdvisor have revolutionised the way travellers plan their trips. It has given travellers a voice and a place to share their experiences. It has also promoted transparency in the travel industry and created a level playing field for businesses, both big and small, to reach travellers,” Kaufer says.

This has been especially beneficial for smaller businesses such as boutique hotels or bed and breakfast (B&B) inns.

Sarang Galloway B&B is among those who have benefited from being listed on TripAdvisor’s website. The business is currently listed on TripAdvisor as the top B&B in Kuala Lumpur and it also won the 2013 Travellers’ Choice Awards.

“TripAdvisor is highly treasured by travellers. Good reviews are hard to come by. When people say you’re the best, it means a lot,” says Michael Fong, who jointly owns and operates Sarang Galloway together with his wife, Christina Foo.

“The reviews, from what I’ve seen so far, have been objective, honest and trustworthy,” he says, adding that he and Foo were also users of the TripAdvisor ­website themselves whenever they planned for their own holidays.

“We use it a lot ourselves so we felt that it would be good (for Sarang Galloway) to be seen on TripAdvisor too.”

Even five-star luxury hotels such as Shangri-La Hotel KL has gained immensely from online exposure.

“It brings us closer to our guests. We can also update them with new offers in a more personalised, effective and efficient ­manner,” says Rosemarie Wee, area director of ­communications at Shangri-La KL.

The hotel’s use of technology is not just confined to its website. She shares that the hotel now uses a paperless check-in system for guests. In addition, hotel staff use a centralised system which helps them attend to the needs of guests more efficiently.

“When a request is put in, it is automatically sent to various departments like housekeeping, the concierge or engineering. From there, it’s acted upon within a given time frame. This ensures a problem is handled immediately,” Wee says.

Vital tool

Travel would not be possible without transport, and technology has definitely made its mark in this arena as well.

“Travellers no longer rely on service ­providers such as airlines to feed them with information,” says Aireen Omar, chief executive officer of AirAsia Bhd. “It is now the era of giving travellers what they want and not pushing what we want to sell to them.”

More than 80% of AirAsia’s sales come from online sources, such as its website and mobile app.

“E-commerce has become a vital business tool. AirAsia uses technology strategically to keep our operations lean and to minimise costs,” explains Aireen, adding that social media has also impacted travel culture quite extensively.

“We found it extremely crucial to remain relevant to our guests through social media. These platforms act as our mouthpiece and work in a symbiotic way between us and our guests. They are able to reach us... and for us, it is the best way to receive feedback and improve our services,” she says.

Meanwhile, bus service providers like Aeroline First Class Sdn Bhd are also tailoring their services to stay relevant in cyberspace.

“We were the first (bus company) in Malaysia and Singapore to start online booking back in 2006. Over the years, we find that more and more people prefer it. It’s very convenient because it saves them time. It’s proven to be a win-win situation for both us as well as our customers,” says Law Cheok Gheen, chief executive officer of Aeroline.

The company also provides customers with the option of concurrently making a hotel booking via its website.

“Customers find it very convenient to immediately check into the nearby hotel after alighting our buses. This has proven to be very popular amongst our customers,” he says.

Besides that, Law says that Aeroline has added touchscreen monitors to its buses to provide on-board entertainment to its passengers. Although a common feature for travel by air, it is a relatively new concept for bus services.

He adds that the company also plans to use these monitors to obtain feedback from passengers while they are still aboard the bus.

“While they travel, they can give us feedback. We can get feedback on the day itself and we will respond in a faster manner as well,” he says.

According to Law, Aeroline is also working towards providing WiFi connectivity to its passengers — a feature that it hopes to have up and running by the middle of this year.

As for Syarikat Central Pahang Omnibus Sdn Bhd, the company behind the First Coach brand of bus services, moving to an online booking system has allowed it to lower ticketing costs and reduce the workload of front desk staff.

“This frees the staff to attend to passenger queries and cuts down their waiting time,” says Jason Yee, its chief operating officer.

“It has also enabled us to reach (customers) beyond Malaysia. We have overseas travellers planning journeys with us also,” he says.

Currently, First Coach’s passengers consist of 70% Malaysians and 30% foreigners.

Yee says the company intends to implement online self check-in features and to improve the overall speed of its website by August or September. The development of mobile apps and a thumbprint system for their drivers are also in the pipeline.

Personal touch

These are indeed interesting times for travellers, with new technologically powered products and services continuing to emerge as companies vie for the attention of consumers. But as advanced as technology may get, there is still an underlying human element required to make travel experiences truly meaningful.

Fong and Foo from Sarang Galloway B&B share their sentiments about striking the right balance between the use of technology and adding a personal touch:

“We were approached by IT experts who wanted to design an online booking system for us. But we’d rather deal with each inquiry individually,” Fong says. The website contains an enquiry form, but does not offer travellers a direct booking system.

“We’ve gotten comments from guests saying that they felt they already knew us even before they had arrived in KL. It’s a very good compliment that’s even better than getting (online) reviews,” he says.

So, while the fact remains that technology is crucial for travel today, let’s not forget to appreciate the faces behind it all who have made these conveniences possible for us.

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